Shaffer's Stagecraft and Themes in The Royal Hunt of the Sun

Categories: Music
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The title of the play “The Royal Hunt of the Sun”, instantly suggests a story about a thrilling quest or an epic adventure. To create a piece of drama that is compatible to it’s title, Shaffer includes many elements in the play, which are involved with the many complex themes that are threaded into a play that consists of only two acts. Shaffer incorporates many stage effects that appeal to almost all of the audience’s senses, to create a memorable performance.

Most of them are visual, like his choice of props, lighting and costume.

Music also plays a big part of this production. Shaffer cleverly uses all of these elements and combines it with some of the main themes he wants to convey and translates on to the stage for the audience to enjoy, and question the meanings behind the story. One of the central themes portrayed consistently throughout the play is religion. In the first scene, the unusually close relationship between religion and violence is already conveyed through the first prop shown on the “bare stage” – “four black crucifixes, sharpened to resemble swords”.

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The “bare stage” allows the audience’s attention to be immediately drawn to the contradicting prop placed on the “back wall”. Christianity is clearly and strictly against violence, yet the symbol of Christianity is somewhat associated with a weapon – “sword[s]”. The unusual combination of the two themes foreshadows the future conflicting ideas to the audience. This is only one of the examples where Shaffer conceals a theme in a prop.

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In scene 2, an “immense wooden Christ” is “b[orne]” by Valverde the priest.

This perhaps suggests the importance of religion at the time, and that it is a major theme in the oncoming play. To further extend the theme of violence, Shaffer shows the various “relentless” and “savage” like behaviour of Pizarro and his crew. One of the most dominant scenes that display this brutality is right at the end of Act 1 – “The Mime of the Great Massacre”. Before this episode Shaffer creates surprising moments to build up to the final outbreak of the “massacre”. Instantly from all sides the soldiers rush in” – this creates an element of surprise especially because of the number of people who suddenly enter the stage from “all sides”. While the audience is still overwhelmed by this, there is a dramatic short period of silence, a “tense pause”, which intrigues the audience again to wonder what‘s going to happen next. Shortly after the “tense pause”, loud sounds are produced by the “violent drumming”. This makes the audience anticipate the action to come, which is when the “savage music” brought in.

The “savage music” creates an exotic yet ominous atmosphere in the theatre. The repetition of the drums – “the drum hammers on relentlessly…” also contributes and corresponds to the tension on this scene, as at this point, “Atahuallpa is led off at sword point”, which is a peak moment in this section. The “vast bloodstained cloth” that is “dragged from the middle of the sun” and “bellies out over the stage” immediately after is another prop that is significantly embedded with a theme.

It shows the scale of the immense slaughter that had just taken place, the destruction of the belief of the whole civilisation, and perhaps the intention of bleeding sun was to foreshadow the downfall of Atahuallpa. This whole action-packed scene emphasizes on the ruthlessness of the Spaniards, and the process of the Spaniards cruelly killing the unarmed Indians is highlighted by the dramatic sound effects and music and the symbolism of the “rippling cloth of blood” that Shaffer puts in this scene.

Another central theme that is Shaffer portrays is bravery. This is most evident in scene 8 – “The Mime of the Great Ascent”. The climb is to be mimed as a “stumbling, tortuous climb into the clouds”. This is accompanied by an “eerie, cold music made from the thin whine of huge saws”, which creates again, a perilous atmosphere, as the “whine of huge saws” is a very unpleasant sound to listen to, which emphasizes bravery as the audience has to see a group of men hiking furiously and overcoming the “ledges and giant chasms” in the treacherous circumstances.

Shaffer also includes a description narrated by Old Martin, to further stress the poor conditions they had to undergo. “Have you ever climbed a mountain in full armour? ” – is a rhetorical question asked by Old Martin, which invites the audience to empathize with the crew as Old Martin makes obvious that it was a hard experience for himself. Shaffer also includes vivid imagery in Old Martin’s narration – “…We crept forward like blind men, the sweat freezing on our face. The simile used makes the audience pity the crew even more, as considering the difficult circumstances at the present time, the fact that they couldn’t see –“blind” and that the weather was horrifyingly cold that made “sweat freez[e] ” makes the situation even worse than it already is. Shaffer also uses lighting as well as more music as an indication that time was running out – “It grows darker”, and music that “grows colder”, making the audience also eager for the members to continue their “desperate climb”.

By adding descriptive narration, atmospheric music, Shaffer creates a vivid scene that portrays the hardships the crew were willing to endure to reach their goal. By showing this, the characters’ admirable and heroic qualities are brought out, making the audience relate to them and feel sympathetic at the same time. Throughout the entire play, there is a general distinct contrast between the two countries, Spain and Peru. Shaffer distinguishes his ideas in the way he chooses to display his setting in each place, and alongside this, he adds music to suggest the mood and location without having too many props set on stage.

Near the beginning of the play, “an organ sounds” and the “austere polyphony of Spanish celebration” is played. This “austere” music creates a religious, and formal mood. This serious environment is later put in contrast especially in scene 13, where the Spaniards first meet Atahuallpa. The music played in this scene is very exotic – “reed pipes, cymbals and giant maracas” in comparison with the dull “organ sounds”. Shaffer’s choice of costume also contributes to the distinction of the two countries.

The “King’s attendants” wear costumes of bright and striking colours – “orange and yellow”, whilst in an earlier scene, villagers just wear “white cloaks of chivalry”. This perhaps conveys that the Incas were more exotic with bright coloured clothing and that the Spaniards were more traditional in duller clothing. Shaffer also makes Atahuallpa dressed “from head to foot in white”, however to present an image of “utter simplicity” instead. In the stage direction provided, Shaffer writes, “by contrast”, which shows his deliberate ideas to make Atahuallpa stand out as king.

All the key themes and ideas are emphasized through various stagecraft techniques in the play. The clear difference between the two countries suggests that Spain is a far more advanced country, as people were able to travel, yet Peru in some sense still seemed to remain like a tribe. Shaffer conveyed that the Spaniards underestimated Peru in the beginning, but as the play progressed, the Spaniards realise that it was different to what they had expected it to be like.

One of the examples in which this idea was through Atahuallpa and Pizarro’s growing friendship in the play. Some props were related to religious hypocrisy, and Shaffer’s intention was possibly to criticise the church at the time. Perhaps Shaffer also ultimately wanted the audience to take away the cruel reality of the extent people do for greed, this was shown from the “Great Massacre” and the brave things the crew were willing to do to get to their destination to get gold, this was shown in the climb of the Andes.

Cite this page

Shaffer's Stagecraft and Themes in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Shaffer's Stagecraft and Themes in The Royal Hunt of the Sun

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